Deep in the forests of southern Guinea, the first victims fell ill with high fevers. People assumed it was the perennial killer malaria and had no reason to fear touching the bodies. Some desperate relatives brought loved ones to the distant capital in search of better medical care, unknowingly spreading what ultimately was discovered to be the deadly Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever that can cause its victims to bleed from the ears and nose. It had never before been seen in this part of West Africa. Now, the disease has turned up in at least two other countries—Liberia and Sierra Leone—and 539 deaths have been attributed to the outbreak that is now the largest on record.
The key to halting Ebola is isolating the sick, but fear and panic have sent some patients into hiding, complicating efforts to stop its spread. The WHO reported 44 new cases including 21 deaths on Friday. (There is no cure and no vaccine for Ebola, and those who have survived managed to do so only by receiving rehydration and other supportive treatment.) Doctors Without Borders says it fears the number of patients being treated in Sierra Leone could be "just the tip of the iceberg." "We're under massive time pressure: The longer it takes to find and follow up with people who have come in contact with sick people, the more difficult it will be to control the outbreak," says a DWB rep. Still, WHO officials hope they will be able to get the situation under control. "Saying that it's out of control makes it sound like there are no solutions," says a top WHO official. "This is a virus for which there are very clear solutions." (Read more Ebola stories.)